Rep. Tom Cross, R-Oswego, is the minority leader of the Illinois House. Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
We stand on the verge of an important moment in Illinois history. Because Republicans and Democrats have set aside partisan differences, we are on the verge of tackling our state’s most monumental problem: comprehensive pension reform. We are doing it together because we know that is the only way it can be done.
Together, we’ve come up with some reform measures that will not only stabilize and assure viability of the state’s pension systems for teachers, university workers and state employees, but also will help prevent our local schools, universities, public safety and social services from facing massive cuts in funding.
The facts are clear. Without comprehensive pension reform, state government will be forced to continue to cut funding to these important services. In the last 10 years, pension costs have risen to $7.5 billion in 2013 from $1.6 billion in 2003. This year’s pension costs will consume approximately 22 percent of the general funds budget, up from 7 percent 10 years ago. And it is projected to rise rapidly in coming years.
What does this mean to you — the Illinois taxpayer? The parent with children in elementary and high school or at a state university? Someone who is disabled or in need of other state services?
The answer is so important to the future of our state. As pension costs grow exponentially, our ability to meet these needs dwindles. It is the proverbial elephant in the room that grows larger and more untenable each year.
We have reason for hope. The Illinois House approved three major reform concepts this spring that together will save our state about $100 billion over the next 30 years in pension costs. There is more work to be done to get a comprehensive reform package put together and approved, but the key components are in place.
There are differing opinions at the Capitol on reform as we head into the next critical two months of the session. We will hear more of plans that do not go nearly far enough to address this issue, and we will see efforts to demonize the good progress made so far. We are ready for both.
Pension reform must be comprehensive and restore sensibility to a process that now forces us to put retirement pay ahead of children, seniors and the needy. It must be constitutional, providing fairness and stability for state employees and taxpayers. Anything less would be a disappointing failure.
The path ahead is difficult, but clear. We must collectively recognize the enormous fiscal challenge our pension debt is presenting, agree to a reasonable comprehensive plan that addresses the challenge, then set aside our differences and work together to pass that solution — House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats.
We have done it before with great results. The 2009 capital construction bill ended a decade-long impasse over funding for roads, bridges, schools and other infrastructure when we worked together. Last year, we did it again on Medicaid reform that protected those really in need of help while passing legislation that would remove those who did not belong on its rolls.
We cannot let the opportunity for change pass us by. We must build on the momentum in the House and Senate and pass a comprehensive pension reform bill that sets Illinois on a better path.